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A belated look back at 2009

For the past 3 years LKL has concocted a quiz of the year as a way of gathering together some of the news stories which have most caught our eye. This year, as I came to draw up the list in mid December I found it hard to think of anything amusing or diverting: most of the news items I could think of related to suicide: hardly festive fare.

A couple of weeks on, I stand by my decision, but having had a chance to reflect further, here are some of the news stories and trends which mark the Korean 2009, and which might have made it into a quiz had I felt more cheery at the time.

The lifetime award for serial under-achievement

First, an omission from my year-end LKL Awards post. The lifetime award for serial under-achievement is shared jointly between the six-party talks and the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement. Year in, year out, they consistently meet expectations by delivering precisely nothing.

Musicians abroad

BoA Album cover
BoA\’s first US album

It’s the battle of SM vs JYP, BoA vs Wonder Girls, as the two agencies and their acts try to crack the US. I’ll eat you up, promised BoA, with her first US album, released in March. LKL hated it, though for Indieful ROK it was a guilty pleasure. But it was the Wonder Girls who made greater headway, making it into the Billboard top 100 with the catchy Nobody. And they’re now “the ones to watch” in 2010. Unless some other girl band comes along.

If I had the time and a research grant, I’d love to do a compare and contrast exercise between the marketing muscle and dollars invested in these commercial artists’ assault on the US, and the more low-key invasion of the UK staged by indie singer-songwriter Younee. The lone Anthony Steinberg with his peak cap pitted against the corporate suits of SM and JYP. One of the many differences between the invasions is that while Younee wants to escape the straightjacket of the Korean music industry, BoA and the Wonder Girls are very much a part of it.

The celebrity business

So far, BoA and the Wonder Girls seem to be getting on with their creators, SM and JYP. But others such as TVXQ were less happy. Also we saw a little of the contracts which lock the stars into “maintaining dignity” (a term which in Choi Jin-shil’s case was breached by being beaten up by her husband), or force them into things they’d rather not be doing (Jang Ja-yeon).


Jang Jin-young

2009 was the year in which we said farewell to the talented actress Jang Jin-young (Sorum, Singles, Ghost in Love, Foul King) who lost her battle with stomach cancer on 1 September 2009 aged 35.

Actors in Hollywood

Lee Byung-hun in GI Joe
Lee Byung-hun in GI Joe

Lee Byung-hun showed off his well-sculpted torso again in GI Joe, while Jeon Ji-hyun had the lead role in Blood: the Last Vampire. Lee probably came off better: a secondary part, but at least the film was less of a turkey than Jeon’s. And we’re about to sample Rain’s latest Hollywood effort, Ninja Assassin, which gets a UK theatrical release this month.

Reversing the tourism deficit

When I first visited Korea in 2001 it was Visit Korea year. I’m sure there has been a Visit Korea Year since then (last year was more specific: it was Visit Gwangju Jeonnam Year), but just in case, the next three years have been designated Visit Korea Years. Three high-profile winter-themed ambassadors have been appointed: Winter Sonata’s Bae Yong-jun; skater Kim Yu-na and cartoon penguin Pororo.

In preparation, the KTO and VANK mobilised the blogosphere as tourism ambassadors with the Blog Korea, Visit Korea competition in which everyone was a winner.

Food diplomacy

Kim Yoon-ok in New York
Kim Yoon-ok in New York

A new year, a new initiative. And it was First Lady Kim Yoon-ok who decided that Korean Food Could Do Better Internationally. Cue a charm offensive in New York, a massively opulent reception in London’s Banqueting House, and no doubt many other events worldwide (including a photo op with Bae Yong-jun).

It was a great year for top food blogger Maangchi to enter the Blog Korea Visit Korea competition – a deserved winner of one of the first prizes. Will Korean food become a top 5 world cuisine within a decade? Unlikely, but it will certainly be better known than it was a few years ago. Meanwhile, here’s Gwyneth Paltrow making a fusion vegetarian Bibimbap.

Construction and environment

Incheon’s impressive new bridge was opened in October.

Incheon Bridge
Incheon Bridge

When Lee Myung-bak was elected, people were asking where he stood on environmental issues and global warming. With Korea now taking over the presidency of the G20, the country seems to be firmly in the environmental mainstream. Initiatives such as the Earth Alert exhibition among others noted by the UK ambassador to Seoul, indicate that such issues are taken seriously. Seoul kicked off the year with an announcement of a 38 billion dollar four-year spend on “Green New Deals”. But much of the spend is to go on the Four Rivers Restoration Project, which cynics suspect is designed to resurrect the grand canal scheme by the back door. And the environment is often a casualty with major construction projects, such as Saemangeum and now Songdo. Next, Sejong City?


Roh Moo-hyun, R.I.P.
Roh Moo-hyun, R.I.P.

Roh Moo-hyun, Jang Ja-yeon, Woo Seung-yeon and Daul Kim were among the sad suicide stories this year, following on from Lee Seo Hyun, Ahn Jae-hwan and Choi Jin-shil the previous year.

Irresponsible or lunatic border-crossers

With people queuing up to risk their lives crossing the border from North Korea into China, you have to be irresponsible or insane to want to cross the border illegally in the opposite direction, especially if you have information which can put at risk the network which supports those who are trying to escape. Step forward Laura Ling, Euna Lee and Robert Park.

Business & Economy

In the middle of a market and economic crisis, the Capital Markets Consolidation Act came into effect in February 2009.1 The Act was dubbed “Korea’s Big Bang”, but the FT’s Lex column was lukewarm: Not so much a bang as a whimper, was the verdict. Probably not the best of timing, but maybe implementation in a period of retrenchment rather than growth gives the changes a chance to bed down.

As far as the foreign banks were concerned a more pressing issue was the ongoing uncertainties around the enforceability of complex currency derivatives known as KIKO contracts. The debate rumbles on, with the most helpful summary indicating that the courts have said that while the hapless corporates can’t walk away from the contracts they should never have been sold them in the first place. Possibly as a reaction, the latest move that the foreign lobbyists are protesting is the requirement that any new product would need regulatory approval before it can be sold.

Korea was one of the first countries to return to growth after the economic crisis. But any pleasure at the KOSPI recovery was tempered by the sadly predictable press comment that foreigners were benefiting from the rise as well. Whatever, it was a year ago that blogger-cum-financial-pundit Minerva was arrested for supposedly disseminating damaging information.

It was a good year for the Samsung boss Lee Kun-hee, let out of jail so that he could help Pyongchang’s third successive bid for the Winter Olympics.

And it was a good year for consumers, with the iPhone finally getting released.


One of the Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty
One of the Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty

A mixed year. More of Korea’s tangible and intangible cultural assets were listed at UNESCO: the Joseon dynasty Royal Tombs were collectively listed; no fewer than five intangible assets including the Ganggangsullae, a traditional dance performed at Chuseok time; and a seventeenth century medical encyclopedia, the Donguibogam. Also this year UNESCO flexed its muscles by warning Korea not to build high-rises near the Jongmyo shrine. Highly laudable. But then the whole UNESCO organisation lost any semblance of credibility by lauding Seoul Metropolitan Government’s Hanok Preservation Programme in Bukchon. The sound of jaws collectively hitting the ground in utter astonishment resounded around the world. Peter Bartholomew, president of the RASKB, the inhabitants of Pimatgol (see J Scott Burgeson’s must-read essay) and particularly David Kilburn of must have scratched their heads in utter bemusement.


  1. For a useful summary of what the CMCA is all about, here’s a useful pdf overview from the Korea Economic Institute. []

One thought on “A belated look back at 2009

  1. UNESCO organisation lost any semblance of credibility by lauding Seoul Metropolitan Government’s Hanok Preservation Programme in Bukchon.

    Late last year, Mayor Oh planned a large festival cum celebration for this. It was abruptly cancelled at the very last moment, and not for budgetary reasons. You might wish to enquire why.

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